The Oscars and the Box Office: A Tale of Two Hollywoods

The ballots for the 83rd annual Academy Awards have been sent out, and it's time again to fret about the future of the movies—and of Oscar.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is carefully watching the second iteration of its biggest Academy Award rule change in decades—allowing a slate of ten best-picture nominees, up from the traditional five.

The expansion came about because the voting members of the Academy had increasingly been taking the word "best" in the category's name to heart, and first nominating—and then awarding their top prize to—daring, unusual, and iconoclastic films.

As a rule these movies didn't attract big audiences; most heretically, many didn't even have actual movie stars in them. The best-picture win of No Country for Old Men, from 2007, was an important catalyst. The film, a tone poem about a guy with a bad haircut and a bolt gun, was one of the least-seen best pictures ever. And everyone from Nikki Finke to the New York Times bemoaned Hollywood's ostensible elitism.

Highest-Grossing Best Picture WinnersLowest-Grossing Best Picture WinnersImage Map

The issue has real-world consequences for the Academy. The No Country Oscarcast, the one Jon Stewart hosted, had dreadful ratings. It endangered the franchise of what was once the Super Bowl of entertainment programming—not to mention the Academy's cash cow.

What to do when the voters weren't doing what's best for the ratings? The new system essentially created an affirmative-action program for disadvantaged blockbusters—with the hope they might bring along some of their audience to watch the show.

The system went into place in 2009. This was the year of James Cameron's Avatar, the highest-grossing picture of all time. (In non-inflated dollars, the film was merely as big as 101 Dalmatians, but whatever.) Avatar made the best-picture nomination cut—but in the vote lost to the uncompromising and unrelenting The Hurt Locker, which, incredibly, made less than a quarter even what No Country had.

The Hurt Locker also happened to be directed by James Cameron's ex-wife. The voters were plainly displaying their contempt for blockbusters.

There are in fact two movie industries in the country now, each with its own audience and support system. The first, biggest, and loudest creates cacophonous entertainments that are shared by an increasingly young crowd in mall multiplexes across the nation. They troop in, almost en masse on opening weekend, to be exposed to $9 popcorn and earsplitting commercials before seeing that week's must-see movie. This audience is remarkably un-price-resistant when the industry has convinced them the films are something it needs to see. A dreary chunk of these movies are sequels (Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers), remakes or reboots (Alice in Wonderland, Star Trek, Batman), repurposings (Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks, G.I. Joe), the work of franchise directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, or some combination thereof.

The problem? Movie attendance has been trending downward for a decade, even as the population increases. The 2010 North American box office was a boon to the industry, essentially matching the celestial $10.6 billion figure from 2009—a full billion dollars higher than 2008. But those big numbers distract attention from a scarier statistic: Actual movie attendance fell quite sharply, down more than 5 percent to 1.35 billion, the lowest mark in 15 years. (Meanwhile, of course, the population increased by about 15 percent.) Gross receipts stayed high only because of the steep surcharges accompanying 3-D and IMAX showings.

Presented by

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of and National Public Radio.

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